Archive for October, 2014

photoxii The unusually mild and dry autumn weather in Devon this year has affected my reading, simply because we have been out a lot enjoying the sunshine. I do have another of my quizzes in preparation to keep readers busy over the holiday period. These were a feature of the blog in earlier years and I hope this one will tempt people to enter for the prize. More about this in a few weeks.

Interestingly the folks at Thriller Books Journal seem to approve of  some of my efforts as they informed me of their item Crime Fiction Blogs Worth Investigating [part eight]. 

Crime Scraps Review:

News, reviews and thoughts about crime fiction by Norman Price, a man with NOIR written through him like a stick of rock. Tremendous.

I would have thought that if there was a word written through me at the moment it was probably RHEUMATISM, but it was very pleasant to read such a flattering appraisal. 🙂

It has encouraged me to make a few comments on the recent CWA Daggers handed out a few days ago at the Specsavers Crime and Thriller Awards.

ctacutoutweb-300x263The Best Actress Dagger: Keeley Hawes, Line of Duty

 The Best Actor Dagger: Matthew McConaughey, True Detective

The Best Supporting Actor Dagger: James Norton, Happy Valley

The Best Supporting Actress Dagger: Amanda Abbington, Sherlock

The TV Dagger: Happy Valley

The Film Dagger: Cold in July

The International TV Dagger: True Detective.

The Specsavers ITV3 Crime Thriller Book Club Best Read: Peter May, Entry Island 

 Crime Writers’ Association Goldsboro Gold Dagger for the Best Crime Novel of the Year: Wiley Cash, This Dark Road to Mercy 

 Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger for the Best New Crime Writer of the Year: Ray Celestin, The Axeman’s Jazz 

 Crime Writers’ Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for the Best Thriller of the Year: Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy 

Last year I read the Gold Dagger novel Dead Lions by Mick Herron, which I enjoyed very much, and will certainly read this year’s winner This Dark Road To Mercy by Wiley Cash, a previous winner in 2012 of the John Creasey New Blood Dagger. I will also try and get round to reading Entry Island by Peter May.

I was very pleased to see that An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris won this year’s CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, it was one of my best five reads of 2013photoxx1

An Officer and a Spy is not only an exciting read, but perhaps might educate those who read it to the dangers of  anti-Semitism, and politicians attempting to cover up gross miscarriages of justice. That list of my best reads of 2013 also included the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger winner the masterly Norwegian By Night by Derek B. Miller

In picking the Robert Harris book for the 2014 Steel Dagger the judges have chosen a quality novel after last year’s poor choice of Ghostman by Roger Hobbs. I read Ghostman and deciding that I did not want to be too negative deliberately did not review it. My failing memory and time have mollified my feelings somewhat, but I still do not think it warranted a prestigious dagger.

My reasons were that Ghostman was a first person monologue by Jack, a professional armed robber, a man who lives off the grid, and who gave readers  a series of laundry lists of how to get in through a locked door, how brilliant he was, how a shovel makes a terrible weapon, how clever he was, and how he blended into the background by arriving in a simple private jet, and how successful he was. But despite being this master criminal he failed to notice his car had a tracking device installed etc etc etc etc…..

I can’t remember much more about it except all the characters were totally amoral thugs, and criminal geniuses, one proved that by telling Jack how he had made a young child drink drain cleaner. Personally I lost interest in Ghostman at that point, but in reality that probably means it will be made into a high grossing movie starring Brad, or Ben or Tom, or all three. 

On a more positive note TV programs that I watched and enjoyed received three daggers: James Norton-Best Supporting Actor in Happy Valley, Best TV series-Happy Valley, and Best Actress-Keeley Hawes in Line of Duty [written by Jed Mercurio].

Happy Valley was written by Sally Wainwright, the creator of another brilliant TV series Scott & Bailey, which has unfortunately  just ended on ITV. In any other year Sarah Lancashire who played police Sergeant Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley would have won Best Actress, but Keeley Hawes did produce a mesmeric performance as Detective Inspector  Lindsay Denton in the superb Line of Duty. 

I think that Happy Valley, Line of Duty, and other gritty series like Southcliffe, and Mayday prove that the best of British TV crime series can match any Nordic or American  series, with the possible exception of the Dickensian brilliance of The Wire. But then of course almost everyone in The Wire was British. 😉  

cyril hareI decided to read Tragedy At Law firstly because it was recommended by Martin Edwards at his brilliant blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name? Martin gives a whole new meaning to the words ‘encyclopaedic knowledge of crime fiction’ and his blog is always a great read. 

Also I have been reading some Agatha Christie as sheer escapism from more modern crime fiction that deals with such serious subjects as the aftermath of the Algerian War, or racism in the American South, or the current problems of terrorism and kidnapping. Therefore over the next few months, all being well, I shall be reading several books from the period of the Golden Age of the English Detective novel, and investigating whether they have any interest for the modern reader. 

Tragedy At Law was published in 1942, it is set in late 1939 and the action runs into 1940 during the period known in Britain as the Phoney War. There was actually nothing phoney about it if you happened to live in Warsaw, Copenhagen or Oslo, but that is what it is called in history books.

Distinguished lawyer Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark wrote Tragedy At Law under the pseudonym Cyril Hare. He was educated at Rugby and Oxford and was a member of the Inner Temple and was called to the Bar in 1924. He practised as a barrister up the the Second World War  and therefore had a thorough knowledge of the procedures about which he wrote with such skill.

” No trumpeteers!” said his Lordship in a tome of melancholy and slightly peevish disapproval. …………

War with all its horrors was let loose upon the earth and His Majesty’s Judge must in consequence creep into his car with no more ceremony than an ambassador or an archbishop. Chamberlain had flown to Godesberg and Munich pleaded for them, but in vain. Hitler would have none of them. The trumpeters must go.

The book tells the story of pompous the Honourable Sir William Hereward Barber, a High Court Judge, on his circuit round the Assize Courts in the South of England, a circuit through fictional towns. He is accompanied on his travels by a group of acolytes, Beamish the Judge’s Clerk, the Judge’s Marshal, Derek Marshall, “Marshall by name and marshal by occupation”, the Judge’s Butler and the Marshal’s Man.

And after the Judge receives threatening letters he is joined by his attractive wife, Lady Hilda, whose takes upon herself the task of protecting her husband, aided by Derek. Unfortunately the Judge has already blotted his copybook by driving while inebriated and without a valid licence or insurance, and in the process having a motor accident that involved damaging the hand of a distinguished concert pianist. So he is concerned about both physical, legal and financial threats to his and his wife’s comfortable existence.

Tragedy At Law is a beautifully written portrait of the legal system in wartime England affected at that stage by only minor inconveniences. The quaint Ruritanian world of Britain’s class system is seen to function with all the pomp and circumstance it can muster.  The story has some great characters, biting sarcasm, humour and gradually builds tension to an interesting climax. It is a slow almost pedestrian progress but has charm and even though it appears outdated has a few interesting comments about society and the almost revolutionary concept of State legal aid. The narrative is enhanced by accounts of various legal cases and of the struggling career path of barrister Francis Pettigrew, who plays a small but vital part in the action. 

Tragedy At Law is a pleasant amusing read, but then for the wealthy and the well off middle class England in the Golden Age of the Detective novel was a pleasant place to live.

To Derek Marshall, experiencing his first contact with the criminal law, it was an august, a thrilling moment………….

” Let Horace Sidney Atkins surrender!” piped the Clerk.

A meek, middle-aged man in a grey flannel suit climbed into the dock, blinked nervously at the magnificence that his wrong-doing had somehow collected together, and pleaded guilty to the crime of bigamy.

Markhampton Assizes was under way at last.   

borderline 2014It seems like yesterday but it is in fact over three years since translator Neil Smith was kind enough to reply to a post about Liza Marklund with a very informative sketch of the future plans for the Annika Bengtzon series. Read it here.

Since then I have reviewed Last Will, Lifetime and The Long Shadow and have just finished reading Borderline, the 9th Annika Bengtzon book.

If anyone asked me to recommend a real “page-turner” thriller novel I would without any hesitation suggest Borderline [Du Gamla, du fria in the original Swedish, which means Set You Free]. This is Liza Marklund back to her very best, ably assisted by Neil Smith, because Borderline reads as if originally written in English.

Annika is back with her former husband after they have spent three years in the USA, but the philandering Thomas is with an EU delegation in Kenya advising on the strengthening of  frontiers, in reality trying to stop the flow of people into Europe from Africa. But while he is lining up the attractive blonde English representative, Catherine Wilson, as his next conquest the delegation are kidnapped near the Somali border.

The narrative switches back and forth between Thomas and his fellow delegates suffering barbaric treatment from their captors somewhere along the Somali-Kenya frontier; and Stockholm where an important and ironic plot line involves the brutal stabbings of  Swedish women by their former partners, or possibly by a serial killer. Women in this story are treated appallingly in both the Northern European utopia, and the East African dystopia.

‘Oil tankers worth hundreds of millions of dollars float past the coast of Somalia every day, and starving people can do nothing but stand on the beach and watch them.’

The negotiations for the release of Thomas are conducted by his boss Jimmy Halenius, who assists Annika to cope with  the terrible situation. How does she tell her children Ellen and Kalle their father is in grave danger? Annika also juggles her strained relationships with her mother, her sister, and best friend Anne Snapphane none of whom are particularly helpful. 

At the offices of Kvallpressen editor in chief Anders Schyman realises that his news editor Patrik Nilsson is lowering the whole tone of the business with ridiculous lead stories about people losing  control of an alien hand. But then seeking the lowest common denominator is what modern media is all about. 

Liza Marklund imparts a lot of detailed information about the media, banking systems, hostage negotiations, and the outcomes of historic hostage situations, but it is  done quite naturally within the narrative, and not in the laundry list method used by some authors. Her technique of switching back and forth between Stockholm and Somalia/Kenya increases the tension and is handled with some skill. Borderline is a very good thriller, with a good plot, great characters, especially Annika, and an almost live documentary atmosphere that makes the reader keep turning those pages until the conclusion. 

‘The kidnappers have plenty of weapons. It’s striking how many hostages end up getting shot. And Somalia is a country where amputations form part of the legal system. It’s traditional that all the external parts of young girls’ genitals are cut off………’

She turned on the cold tap in the basin and let the water run over her wrists. She felt like crying, but was too angry. There had to be limits. She didn’t want to hear about mutilated little girls. She needed help, but not at any cost.

 I feel any violent events discussed in the book such as the Rwandan Genocide, and the beheading of Daniel Pearl, are necessary to create the atmosphere, and mentioned in a factual way without any embellishments.      

sycamore row 2014I was encouraged to read Sycamore Row by John Grisham after reading posts about the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction on Bill Selnes impressive blog Mysteries and More. Bill is a lawyer in Saskatchewan and he seems to be the sort of legal representative we would all like to have on our side. Sycamore Row is billed as the sequel to A Time To Kill [1989] Grisham’s first book, famously rejected by publishers, and deals with the challenging  racial atmosphere in rural Mississippi in the late 1980s.

Seth Hubbard has secretly built up a vast fortune in timber and real estate but has terminal lung cancer. He decides to commit suicide as he can’t stand the pain and prepares a new handwritten will disinheriting his worthless children, and leaving 5% to his church, 5% to his long lost brother Ancil, and 90% to his black housekeeper and carer Lettie Lang.  He sends a copy of his will and a covering letter to arrive after his death to lawyer Jake Brigance explaining his family will challenge the new will and entreats him that ” he wants this will defended at all costs…”

Fight them, Mr Brigance, to the bitter end . We must prevail.

Sycamore Row is an excellent book with a strong message against racism, and although the reader is given a hint about why Seth leaves so much on his estate to Lettie this does not spoil the story. The reader is given a lot of information about lawyering in small towns, and learns that although the sheriff of Ford County Ozzie Walls is black the county is still “segregated” socially.

old natchezFord County was 74 percent white, but Ozzie had won his election and reelection by wide margins. The blacks adored him because he was one of their own. The whites respected him because he was a tough cop and a former football star at Clanton High. In some aspects of life in the Deep South, football was slowly transcending race.

The reader is drawn in to the early chapters as we see Seth’s children Hershel and Ramona treat Lettie apallingly in such an offensive manner that it reminded me of the hlpfilm, The Help, even though that was set two decades earlier. Jake is fighting against bigger legal firms who will use any means to influence the mainly white jury that will be selected in Ford County. Jake represents the estate of Seth Hubbard, and when Simeon her disreputable husband persuades her to hire her own firm of black lawyers from Memphis the situation becomes more complex as her kinfolk arrive in droves to share in her predicted good fortune.

Sycamore Row is a long book and while the trial preliminaries drag on for months Grisham keeps the reader glued to the page with character sketches, and tales of life in rural Mississippi. 

“If you say so. You ever have a restrainin’ order?”

“No, but my brother did. Bitch convinced a judge he was dangerous, which he was, and a judge told him to stay away from the house and keep his distance in public. Didn’t bother him. Killed her anyway.”

Sycamore Row won the 2014 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction awarded by the University of Alabama to a book length work of fiction that illuminates the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change. 

I think John Grisham’ Sycamore Row  was a worthy winner of the prize, because this book despite its length and the very serious and important subject matter was an easy read.      

My previous post about Philippe Georget’s second book in the Inspector Sebag series said that it had a promising beginning. That promise was definitely fulfilled and my dettaglio_282interest was maintained throughout the entire 430 pages. The three strands of the plot are cleverly interwoven with back stories of the murderous activities of an OAS group in Algeria in 1962, the hunt, lead by Gilles Sebag, for the murderer of elderly former Frenchmen from Algeria [Pied-noir], and the intriguing family life of the detective who is constantly worried by thoughts that his beautiful wife Claire has had an extra marital affair.

The reader is also given insights into the mind of the elderly murderer although we don’t get fully informed about his motives until the conclusion. Although the interactions between the team of detectives are quite well done this book concentrates more on the character of Gilles Sebag, a man perhaps too nice to be a policeman. He listens to the Pied-Noir and it is pointed out that not all were supporters of the OAS.

The politics of France have always been complex and you would need to be a Talleyrand or a Mitterand to stay on the right side of history.

Our France was the France of the 1930 centenary celebration of the conquest of Algeria. At that time, the colonization of Algeria was the glory of France, and the colonist was seen as a courageous and hardworking man, a hero, a veritable cowboy of the Far South. Those of us who lived in Algeria saw things that way in the autumn of 1954, when the war began, and we still did in 1962, when the war ended………

For the metropolitan French, we were no longer heroes but rich exploiters, unjust and racist. The glory of France had become its shame.

And this biased view became the historical truth.

The Algerian War 1954-1962 was a vicious conflict, and since independence hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have died in Algeria’s disastrous civil conflicts. I think Philippe Georget managed this incendiary subject rather well  in Autumn All The Cats Return and gave readers something to think about because some of the world’s present conflicts date back to the age of colonialism when France and Britain drew lines on maps to create nations without much thought as to the ethnic makeup of those countries. 

Parts of this novel reminded me of Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal as Sebag and his team hunt for the elderly killer on both sides of the Franco-Spanish border  from the rugby playing towns of Southern France to the soccer territory of South Catalonia. Jacques Molina, Sebag’s colleague, is a rugby fan, and ….

Sebag was looking at the photos that Jacques had put up behind him. They all dated from June 2009, the year the local rugby team had finally won its seventh national championship after fifty-four years of trying. One of the pictures particularly impressed Sebag. It showed the team’s return to Perpignan the day after its victory: an enormous dense crowd of fansin red and yellow was massed in front of the Castillet………

On that day…………he’d been sorry not to be a Catalan.

The author wrote that in 2012 and in a bittersweet reversal of fortune Perpignan, champions of France in 2009, in 2013 were relegated to the second division of French professional rugby. 

This book is an excellent read, a contender for the CWA International Dagger, and you don’t have to be an historian or a rugby fan, Sebag isn’t, to enjoy the story of the hunt for a geriatric assassin. The character of Sebag is compelling and I will hopefully read the next book in the series to discover what secrets Claire may be hiding from Gilles.